What Is Umami Taste? A Guide to the "Fifth Taste"

Parmesan Popcorn is Full of Umami Flavor. Bad Reichenhaller/Flickr

For Westerners schooled in the four basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter), the concept of umami, or the "fifth taste," may be a new one. Umami describes foods with an inherent savoriness. We taste umami in foods like Parmesan cheese, seaweed, miso, and mushrooms, which contain high levels of the amino acid glutamate. It's a complex, elemental taste, and perhaps our craving for it is driven by some biological imperative.

Both amniotic fluid and breast milk are high in the amino acids that deliver the taste of umami, which may prime us to seek its flavor throughout life.

More About Umami

Umami means "pleasant savory taste" in Japanese. The popularity of umami has been rising since the 1980's when research about the fifth basic taste began to increase. Much research is shared at the International Symposium on Umami, a gathering of people from around the world who study the four basic tastes. They have confirmed that umami is on its own and does not enhance other basic tastes. To determine if umami was its own taste, researchers had to prove that umami was not produced by any combination of other basic tastes, is independent of other basic tastes, has its own specific receptor for its taste and lastly, is found universally in many foods. All of these were found to be true.

For more information about the trends surrounding umami:

Top 10 Food Trends for 2011: Umami

In Search of the Elusive Fifth Taste: Umami

Umami-Rich Recipes

Once umami was found to be a basic taste, it has been sought after to experience. There are restaurants that play up their savory offerings to attract those interested in flexing their umami-taste-muscle, but you can try this umami taste for yourself at home.

Here are three recipes that will give you the umami taste without the restaurant experience:

Garlic Maple Portobello Burgers - Recipe for Vegetarian Mushroom Burgers

Bruschetta with Jamón Serrano, Fennel, Olives, and Pecorino Romano

Where to Buy Umami Ingredients

As mentioned above, umami taste can be found widely in a great number of foods, so you don't have to go to a specialty to store to enjoy the taste of umami. Foods with umami elements that are easier to find (they should be available in your local grocery store) including chicken, beef, and pork, as well as tomatoes, cheese, soy, potatoes, and carrots. Although some foods with umami taste are harder to find than others.